How to Avoid Typical Foreigner Gaffes in Japan


Japan has long been viewed as an exciting cultural destination, but many people travel without brushing up on the social etiquette. The Japanese are a polite society and tourist behaviour can often result in some embarrassing situations and strange looks. Many times you may not even realise you are offending anyone! Japan ski resorts such as Niseko and Hakuba are no exception, and the focus on skiing and snowboarding can make it even easier to forget to observe a different set of manners to those you are used to.

Learning about other cultures and being respectful to their ways is one of the joys of travelling.  And don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it looks: just keep these simple rules in mind and you’re sure to make your trip more meaningful and enjoyable.

Wearing your Shoes Inside

A relatively easy rule, but easy to forget when caught up in your day. Many (but not all) restaurants in Japan will require you to take off your shoes after entering the building. A big clue is when the entrance way has slippers, shelves with shoes on them, or shoe lockers. Most often, there will be a street-level area inside the store, and a raised step in areas where shoes should be taken off. Floor seating in an otherwise shoe-friendly restaurant sometimes requires shoe removal too. If in doubt ask the staff who will be more than happy to assist.

If you are entering someone’s home, it is more than likely that you will be required to remove your footwear first. Look for the same shoe-friendly space, shoe racks, and a raised floor beyond which it’s strictly socks and slippers only. This cultural convention stops dirt from being brought in to the house and is an easy way to show respect to your host.

Noise Levels in Japan

The Japanese are generally quiet and respectful in public places and especially on public transport. You’ll notice people either stop their conversations, or keep their voices at a lower volume when they get on public transport, or even when they’re eating out. Foreigners on the other hand can often be perceived as loud, self-confident and overbearing. It is worth trying to keep noise at a reasonable level which shows respect for those around you. On trains this includes refraining from talking on your mobile phone or listening to  music through headphones loud enough for those around you to hear.

Tipping in Japan

Service workers in Japan all receive a reasonable wage and do not rely on tips to bulk their salaries. For this reason tipping in Japan can actually be perceived as insulting, or confusing. If you feel your service has been exceptional, look for a tip jar near the register. Leaving a tip on the table when you leave is more likely to result in staff running after you down the street to return your money!

The Use of Chopsticks

With the sheer number of Asian restaurants and cup noodles around the world, many people are proficient with chopsticks, but even if you count yourself among them, you might be unaware of a few points that can cause offense.

The most common faux pas is standing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, or passing food to someone else chopsticks to chopsticks. These acts are similar to those performed as part of funeral rituals, and are considered extremely rude. Don’t stab your food with chopsticks either!

Avoid these things and you can’t go to far wrong, as long as you can avoid playing with your food!

Littering in Japan

This should go without saying, but Japan is an exceptionally clean country. This is hard to believe as public bins are almost non-existent. Many people keep their rubbish with them and take it home, or alternatively dispose of it at one of the many convenience stores. Just make sure you’re ready to do the same. Keep plastic bags from the convenience store to carry any rubbish you make, and when you find a bin, make sure you separate trash. Usually you’ll find Plastics, burnables, cans and pet bottles (and handy pictures showing you what goes where).

Japanese ski resorts have so much to offer the discerning traveller. Keep the above points in mind and you’re sure to have a fantastic time, and leave a wonderful impression. Get in touch with Japan Ski Experience to find out how to put a trip together, and you can always throw any questions about cultural etiquette their way too!

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